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Ray LaHood '71: He can bring people together

Transportation secretary is also Obama's envoy to congressional Republicans

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood '71 shakes hands with President Barack Obama during the President's February 2009 visit to a Caterpillar plant in East Peoria, IL. LaHood is the first Bradley graduate selected for a Cabinet position. (AP Photo / Charles Dharapak)

By Mike Dorning | Washington Bureau
Chicago Tribune
April 7, 2009

WASHINGTON—When President Barack Obama needs to reach out to the political opposition, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood often gets the call to be the go-between.

Rahm Emanuel calls him the Obama administration's envoy to congressional Republicans. "He's our ambassador beyond his portfolio," the White House chief of staff explained in an interview.

When Obama traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican members of the House, LaHood was by his side. When a group of moderate Republican members of Congress came to the White House to talk over the stimulus package with Emanuel, LaHood was in the room.

Though Defense Secretary Robert Gates identifies himself as a Republican, in the Cabinet of a president pledged to bipartisan cooperation LaHood is the only member, as he likes to point out, "elected as a Republican—seven times."

LaHood has the street cred with the GOP after 14 years in Congress as a Republican representing the storied stand-in for Middle America, Peoria, and several more before that as the top aide to then-GOP House leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.). Now LaHood can draw on a network of relationships with Republican members of Congress and a deep knowledge of their personalities, interests and idiosyncrasies.

Those friendships make it easier for him to call Republican members of Congress. That, and as LaHood notes with characteristic bluntness, the $48 billion that the Transportation Department has to give out in the stimulus package.

"When you're secretary of transportation with $50 billion, people return your phone calls," said LaHood, chuckling during an interview in his sun-splashed top-floor office at the Transportation Department's gleaming new headquarters in Washington's Federal Center.

LaHood is an active and committed Bradley alumnus. A longtime donor and strong advocate for his alma mater, LaHood is also past president of the Bradley University Alumni Association. He served on the Bradley Board of Trustees from 1999 to 2006. He was named the 2008 Distinguished Alumnus at Founder's Day in October of that year. (Fred Zwicky / Journal Star)

Though the administration has not had much success recruiting Republican support for the president's signature legislative initiatives—not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus package—the administration's efforts at bipartisan outreach are still heavily promoted by the White House. And LaHood is a key player in that strategy.

LaHood's strongest ties are to the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a solid majority, rather than the Senate, where the administration needs Republican votes to overcome filibusters.

But Howard Paster, who directed former President Bill Clinton's congressional relations, noted that votes from Republicans in the House as well as the Senate pay important political dividends, particularly on controversial legislation, and can make the difference on issues that don't break down along party lines.

The Clinton administration turned to Republicans to win passage of NAFTA and pursue normal trade relations with China. The Obama administration may need Republican votes on more bailout funding, trade legislation or Immigration reform, Paster said. LaHood also says there is an opportunity to attract GOP support for Obama priorities such as health-care reform, education and energy legislation.

Within days of Obama's election, Emanuel began sounding out LaHood about a place in the Cabinet and lobbied on his behalf with Obama. According to Emanuel, the president initially considered LaHood for the Agriculture Department but placed him at transportation, an arena that traditionally has not been highly partisan because struggles over transportation funding mostly break down along regional rather than ideological lines.

While LaHood has a relationship with the president from their time in the Illinois congressional delegation, Emanuel has been an important ally of LaHood's inside the administration. Emanuel and LaHood forged a close relationship when they served together in Congress, working across party lines on a few pieces of legislation and co-hosting regular bipartisan dinners for members of Congress. They plan to resume the dinner series.

The two are a bit of an odd couple. Emanuel is a combative, hyperkinetic, hyperpartisan former Clinton aide, a battle-scarred veteran of the bitter 1990s party wars who is known throughout Washington by the nickname "Rahmbo." LaHood is a gentlemanly, old-school institutionalist who unsuccessfully tried to tamp down the rancor on Capitol Hill by co-founding a bipartisan weekend-long civility retreat.

Illinois' 18th Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives has been held by Bradley alumni for 52 years and counting. Aaron Schock '02 (left) currently holds the seat which was previously occupied by Bob Michel '48 HON '71 (center) and Ray LaHood '71 (right).

Emanuel, who is Jewish, served as a civilian volunteer in the Israeli army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War; LaHood, an Arab Catholic, fumed publicly over the Bush administration's indifference to the 2006 Israeli bombing campaign in his ancestral Lebanon. LaHood has maintained close ties to his family's homeland, visiting Lebanon at least 13 times as a member of Congress.

"He has his point of view and I have my point of view," LaHood said of Emanuel. "I think the idea that a member of Congress of Lebanese Maronite [Catholic] background can work so closely with a Democrat of the Jewish faith speaks volumes about both of us and our ability to work together."

The two share a pragmatic bent and, according to several members of Congress and aides to both men, a respect for each other's abilities. They often are on the phone together—nearly every day during the run-up to the stimulus vote—and regularly get together for dinner, often at La Lomita, a neighborhood Mexican restaurant popular with the Capitol Hill crowd.

"You really saw a soft side of Rahm in the way he dealt with Ray," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), a regular at the bipartisan dinners the two organized. "It's the body language. It's the talking. It's just more up-close and personal. ... It's an ease with each other."

In Illinois, some see LaHood as overly cozy with the political establishment. Tribune columnist John Kass, among others, has criticized LaHood for political support he received from Republican dealmaker and state asphalt pavement association leader William Cellini, now indicted on corruption charges.

"I find the selection of Ray LaHood troubling in a lot of ways," said former state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin). "His longtime association with Bill Cellini, the Illinois Asphalt [Pavement] Association and the Springfield Republican leadership make me question whether this is change we can believe in." Rauschenberger is a former rival of LaHood's for the 2006 Republican gubernatorial nomination, a contest both eventually quit due to fundraising difficulties.

LaHood rejects any suggestion he has been compromised. Cellini, he said, "never, ever, ever called me during the time that I was a member of Congress and asked me to do anything for him. Absolutely nothing. And I haven't spoken to him since the election."

LaHood is a product of the deal-making culture of the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that controls federal spending legislation. LaHood served for eight years on the panel, and it was the power base for his mentor, Bob Michel. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste responded to his appointment by naming him "Porker of the Month" in January to highlight his support for more than $58 million in earmarked local spending the previous year.

As transportation secretary, LaHood will have to manage a massive wave of public works spending with a sensitivity to the perils of waste and abuse. It would not do to have one of the president's signature programs produce a repeat of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere"—the Alaska pork-barrel project that provoked an outcry against the GOP-controlled Congress in 2005.

But the primary asset LaHood brings to his post is his relationships in Congress, particularly among Republicans.

In fact, LaHood has played the role of ambassador before on the Hill. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) often used him as an emissary to moderate Republicans, said Mike Stokke, who was Hastert's deputy chief of staff.

"He likes to bring people together, and he's really good at it," Stokke said. "If there's a way or a will for a dialogue, he can do it."